Archetypes of Change

The Evolving Comic Book and Its Heroes

Drawing on Northrop Frye's theories of myth and genre, this exhibit uses Magill Library's student-curated comics collection to trace the evolution of the comic-book hero from early, larger-than-life superheroes like Captain America and Wonder Woman to the more human protagonists of recent comics as individuals whose vulnerability and diversity inform their values and reflect a more inclusive and morally complex society.

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Summer: The Romantic Hero

Captain AmericaThe romantic hero, which Frye equates with summer, is typically a static and pure character with superior abilities, who defends dominant society from an outside threat. This heroic type operates within clearly defined boundaries of good and evil and works to uphold the community's prevailing values, restoring societal harmony by the story's conclusion.

Superman Captain America

Wonder Woman


Autumn: The Tragic Hero

DaredevilAutumn corresponds to tragedy and focuses on the isolation of the hero rather than a threat to that hero's society. The tragic hero is typically someone superior in degree to other human beings, as in a god or superhero, but one with a flaw or imperfection that leads him or her towards an inevitable decline. Tragedy stresses the limitations of the hero's power and the supremacy of fate.

X-men: the Dark Phoenix Saga Daredevil

Nexus Miracleman


Winter: the Inferior and Absurd Hero

American FlaggIf the romantic hero of summer is pure, selfless and superior in character to the reader, the hero of winter represents its opposite – inferior, pitiable, comical and absurd. Encompassing the modes of irony and satire, the winter hero is best described as a parody or intentional perversion of the traditional superhero.

American Splendor Thrilling Adventure Stories

Judge Dredd American Flagg


Spring: Comedy, Rebirth, and Plurality

Doom PatrolWhereas the conflicts inherent in the romance narrative are resolved when the original order of society is restored, comedy represents a transformation, the movement of one kind of order towards the birth of a new one. The status quo at the beginning of the story is generally characterized by some arbitrary law and older order, often a "sham utopia," while the newly transformed society stresses greater freedom and flexibility. The hero in comedy is an evolution of the ironic mode's pitiful hero into a figure imbued with more of the mythic importance associated with the romantic hero.

Doom Patrol Slut Burger Black Orchid


Conclusion

AnimalmanComics and traditional myth alike often function as reifications of a culture's values, but this fact also makes these narratives ideal vehicles to critique, subvert, and transform society's beliefs. Many of the comics included in this exhibit are from the 1980s--a selection which captures the seismic shifts in American culture at the end of the Cold War. As the United States emerged from a self-narrative of moral superiority, comics served as tools to expedite and capture our society's transformation, simultaneously testifying to the redemptive mutability of the American cultural space.